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Thread: What is scientific study of religion?

  1. #1 What is scientific study of religion? 
    Forum Radioactive Isotope skeptic's Avatar
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    As a non believer and a science geek, I wonder how we can scientifically study religion except in psychology.

    Religion or religions are surely just an aspect of the way the human mind works? We can certainly study human psychology in a scientific way, and we can study the science of why the human mind can embrace religious belief. But how can we study religion itself scientifically?

    In other words, under the general topic of the scientific study of religion, how can we honestly be discussing anything other than human mentation?


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    History, sociology, and anthropology are other fields where study of religion could play a part. The subforum used to be called just "Religion" until the previous owner decided to ban preaching.

    Some atheists feel that this would be a good forum to explain why they are atheists, and why everybody else should be too; however, I don't see much of any scientific interest in those kinds of discussions.

    There has been some discussion in the moderator's forum about what we should do with this subforum, but we never came to any conclusion.


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    I suppose it's not unlike scientific study of music, or scientific study of any other social phenomenon, except in a scientific study of music we could trade information about how to improve our practices of it.

    I'd rather see creationists discuss their ideas here rather than in biology, geology, or pseudo-science. (I think they feel they're being discounted right out of the box if they see their posts moved to pseudo. ) In general I think this forum is a good place for people from a religious background to get warmed up to the scientific method, and see how it differs from faith based belief systems, so they don't head directly into the other forums and start butting heads with people who will be asking them for evidence, and not know what to do about it.
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    Kojax

    I can appreciate and agree with your comment about creationism. It is a very good point. Perhaps another forum section titled something like "Alternative theories to biological evolution"?

    However, my question remains unanswered. What are we to discuss under the heading of scientific study of religion?

    I guess there have been attempts to study aspects of religion. I have read of studies into the effect of prayor on recovery from illness. Perhaps this kind of thing? Apart from that, I find my thoughts sticking with psychology. Perhaps the science of religion is the science of why humans turn to belief in something for which credible empirical evidence is missing. Why people believe by act of faith, rather than using data?
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  6. #5  
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    I am not convinced that religion cannot be studied scientifically.

    The only attempts I am aware of are the prayer / illness studies. Other aspects of theology could be tested.

    However, I don't know what sort of journal would be interested in this sort of work.
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  7. #6  
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    I think this forum is a good place to help religious people figure out how to become educated without compromising their beliefs. Otherwise, religion and education will become mutually exclusive, and well..... that has dangerous implications. Religious people who study science need a way to fit everything they know into the Bible without too much cognitive dissonance. I's really hard to believe simultaneously in a 6 day creation and an accretion disk. Mormons I know get around it by using a creative interpretation about what a "day" means in bible speak.

    Also, theology does sometimes dabble in physics. One foundational Mormon belief is that God cannot create or destroy matter. Taken together with E=MC^2, that would also mean he's bound by the conservation of energy. So by intermingling a bit of science into religion you arrive at a picture of God where He has to operate inside a framework of rules, and that has interesting implications for the problem of evil in the world.
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    The problem with that approach is that science is not based on deductive logic. It is much more based on inductive logic. To discuss the implications of different kinds of possible deities is logic, and is more fitted to philosophy. Science is more suited to gathering data in the empirical manner, and then developing ideas from that.

    To me, a specifically described deity should permit experimental work to attempt to falsify such ideas. This would put religion into the field of experimental science. But apart from the aforementioned prayor/illness tests, I am unaware of any such work.

    If experimental work was carried out, and falsified (for example) the Christian view of deity, how would the religious people react?
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    I am also only aware of the prayer / illness studies. I also have not gone through the methods of these studies. If that is all there is, then other possible areas of investigation include:

    1. Repeat prayer experiments by changing the: 1. Object of prayer. 2. Method of prayer. There is some theology that suggests that when people pray together, the effect could be enhanced. "When two or three are gathered together . . .". Thus, linking people at a common place, or even a common time (example 1900 EST etc.), could change the result.

    2. Change the variable from prayer to affirmation. I heard a sermon that suggested that an "affirmation" can work when prayer fails. An affirmation is a statement of faith.

    3. Perception experiments. Theists often believe they see God in many aspects of their lives. Either they see something that atheists can't see, or they are imagining something. After investigating isolated examples where people claimed that their perception changed (atheist to theist), the circumstances could be investigated and an attempt could be made to reproduce the "change in perception" among groups of volunteers.

    These are just examples. Other people who know more theology than me could probably think of something better.

    I don't know of an experiment that could "prove a negative". So the idea of an experiment that could "disprove Christianity" is difficult to imagine.
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    The study of religion can include many things:

    There's obviously the accounts by religion that can be tested. The bible for examples is full of events that can measured and veracity or likelihood by biology, archeology, geology, the study of language and can touch on many others.

    The effects of religion. Some of this is being done, like the effects of prayer on the sick (no effect or negative when the patients knew others were praying for them).

    Perhaps the science of religion is the science of why humans turn to belief in something for which credible empirical evidence is missing. Why people believe by act of faith, rather than using data?
    That's of great interest for many of us. Mostly because what ever replaces faith, as religions fade, needs to in large part also meet the psychological needs that religion provided. This is a personal take for me as religion was the center of my family and social life for many years and is the glue for many communities that keeps the peace, the charity high, and everyone pulling together when times are hard--things that it seems secular ideologies don't yet do very well.
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    Quote Originally Posted by dedo View Post
    I am not convinced that religion cannot be studied scientifically.

    The only attempts I am aware of are the prayer / illness studies. Other aspects of theology could be tested.

    However, I don't know what sort of journal would be interested in this sort of work.
    Have a look at the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion - Journal Information

    Currently, topics include:

    Spirituality and Subjective Religiosity Among African Americans, Caribbean Blacks, and Non-Hispanic Whites
    Lina M. Chatters, Robert Joseph Taylor, Kai M. Bullard, and James S. Jackson
    New Age, Religiosity, and Traditionalism: A Cross-Cultural Comparison
    Sergej Flere and Adrej Kirbi
    Christian Religiosity and New Age Spirtuality: A Cross-Cultural Comparison
    Dick Houtman and Paul Heelas
    Alternative Schooling Strategies and the Religious Lives of American Adolescents
    Jeremy E. Uecker
    Conceptions of God and the Devil Across the Lifespan: A Cultural-Developmental Study of Religious Liberals and Conservatives
    Lene Arnett Jensen
    Do Genetic Factors Influence Religious Life? Findings from a Behavior Genetic Analysis of Twin Siblings
    Matt Bradshaw and Christopher G. Ellison


    And this is one of perhap a dozen or so journals and conferences where academics come together to study the phenomena of religoius belief.
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  12. #11  
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    Very interesting ylooshi.

    However, the index suggests most studies are behavioural - looking at the religious people, rather than at religion itself. The genetic study suggests a rough 50:50 genes versus environment explanation for religiosity, which is of interest, though their very large margin of error is disappointing.
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    Thanks for the link ylooshi:

    It seems there is a lot of literature on religious beliefs.

    I was just wondering if there is a way to design an experiment to produce "evidence of God", since a lot of the discussion here involves that.
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    well i think science is still working out on the theories religion proved years back!! because science is not complete yet....
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  15. #14  
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    Of course, no religious theory has ever been 'proved'. Not that science ever tries to 'prove' anything either. We simply end up with models of reality that can be called strong models or weak models. In common language, a strong model is more likely to be correct, such as the atomic theory, while a weak model is very likely to be quite wrong - such as the phlogistan model of combustion.
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  16. #15  
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    Quote Originally Posted by skeptic View Post
    Very interesting ylooshi.

    However, the index suggests most studies are behavioural - looking at the religious people, rather than at religion itself. The genetic study suggests a rough 50:50 genes versus environment explanation for religiosity, which is of interest, though their very large margin of error is disappointing.
    Well, to be fair, it's a journal of the social sciences, so the trend is naturally to examine the behavioral aspects of religion as a whole. Religion is, after all, an exercise of behavior. That which affects individuals -drives them to religious beliefs of varied degrees, provides perception of religious experiences, etc.- that is all neurological. As an anthropologist, I'm more familiar with the sociological and anthropological studies of religion than the neurological and physical studies.

    That having been said, however, I'd recommend these texts:

    McNamara, Patrick (2009). The Neuroscience of Religious Experience. Cambridge University Press.

    Voldand, Eckart and Wulf Schiefenhovel (eds) (2009). The Biological Evolution of Religious Mind and Behavior. Springer-Verlag.

    Taves, Ann (2009). Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things. Princeton University Press.

    I've only read the last of these, and found it quite engaging and informative. The other two are somewhere in my rather large "to-read" stack.
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  17. #16  
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    Quote Originally Posted by dedo View Post
    Thanks for the link ylooshi:

    It seems there is a lot of literature on religious beliefs.

    I was just wondering if there is a way to design an experiment to produce "evidence of God", since a lot of the discussion here involves that.
    You might read Victor Stenger's The God Hypothesis. He talks a lot about this and, while he's a physicist, the book is easily read -accessible yet still very intelligent.
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  18. #17  
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    Quote Originally Posted by Binz View Post
    well i think science is still working out on the theories religion proved years back!! because science is not complete yet....
    This statement lacks any coherent sense. Religion has no theories. It has irrational and unsupported dogma. Science is, by nature, incomplete.
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    Quote Originally Posted by skeptic View Post
    Of course, no religious theory has ever been 'proved'. Not that science ever tries to 'prove' anything either. We simply end up with models of reality that can be called strong models or weak models. In common language, a strong model is more likely to be correct, such as the atomic theory, while a weak model is very likely to be quite wrong - such as the phlogistan model of combustion.
    hey atomic theory was proved to have errors errors right??? for an example discovery of sub atomic particles, discovery of isotopes,nuclear reactions... etc
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  20. #19  
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    Quote Originally Posted by ylooshi View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by Binz View Post
    well i think science is still working out on the theories religion proved years back!! because science is not complete yet....
    This statement lacks any coherent sense. Religion has no theories. It has irrational and unsupported dogma. Science is, by nature, incomplete.
    well some religions can be studied....for an example ​ Buddhism. more than a religion it's basically a philosophy...we can study it and it's composed of theories...
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  21. #20  
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    Quote Originally Posted by dedo View Post
    I am not convinced that religion cannot be studied scientifically.

    The only attempts I am aware of are the prayer / illness studies. Other aspects of theology could be tested.

    However, I don't know what sort of journal would be interested in this sort of work.
    Well, it just so happens the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General managed to print recently a study from Harvard that was distorted by Yahoo News under the outrageous headline "Belief in God Boils Down to a Gut Feeling" (September 22, 2011). Given the overconfident reporting of the findings, the biases and labels, I don't quite understand how the study was published after peer review (of course, other than it came out of an elitist university like Harvard). It is highly questionable, if this is the quality of the research that is going to comprise the "psychology of faith," and I explain why in a critique I did on the study called "Divine Intuition: Cognitive Style Influences Belief in God." You can find it here: The Scientism Times: Divine Intuition: Cognitive Style Influences BELIEF in God? or here: http://scientismtimes.wordpress.com/...belief-in-god/

    If you're interested in the kind of problems associated with studying belief in God with scientific methods you might find my critique interesting.
    Last edited by peterk301; October 21st, 2011 at 12:39 PM.
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  22. #21  
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    We can discuss religions' effects on society. Whether the underlying beliefs are real or not, the religion itself is real. It has a measurable impact on the world, and we can devise theories of causality that describe those impacts. Also, we can examine what possible uses it can be put to in accomplishing other things.

    If you ask Ox, he'll tell you it's just a mindlessly destructive force that encourages people to drink the cool aid. That's just his view, and it's highly unfavorable, but at least it's an example of a scientific outlook. Another possibility would be to see it accomplishing good things, and devise theories as to why it accomplishes those .
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    The existence of God cannot be determined by scientific inquiry. God simply does not fit into either a test tube or mathematical equation.

    The studies on the efficacy of prayer are all based on the premise that God will act as a trained seal and perform to certain specifications on demand. In my experience, this is not a good way to approach God. This method is much like asking a general or the leader of a given nation to prove his authority over the armed forces by destroying a certain city. Chances are the experiment will not produce any direct results. This isn't a perfect analogy as the general or leader is probably more likely to respond in the negative. Of course, when God responds in the negative, most folks don't get the message.

    The only way to find out about Christianity is to become a Christian. Then, of course, your view won't be 'impartial', since you will be part of the subject to be investigated. On the other hand, as long as one is NOT a Christian, the assumption is there's something unreal about Christianity. Sort of a problem there.


    kojax, this is an incredible stretch.
    Quote Originally Posted by kojax
    If you ask Ox, he'll tell you it's just a mindlessly destructive force that encourages people to drink the cool aid. That's just his view, and it's highly unfavorable, but at least it's an example of a scientific outlook.
    What is scientific about it? It's an emotional and erroneous statement demonstrating hostility and ignorance, not observation.
    The universe is a real place. However, you can't see it, you have to imagine it. Like it or not, God designed, built and sustains the Universe. Deal with it.
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    two things need to be cleared:
    1. what does science say about religion
    2. what does religion say about science.

    then
    study
    1. science religiously
    2. religion scientifically

    then there will be no difference
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    Precious

    There is no such thing as good science done religiously.
    The study of scientific subjects follows rigid rules - scientific rules. If you veer from the proper methods, it is no longer science.

    Religion studied scientifically will disappear. Science requires empirically derived, strong, and objective evidence. Science rejects phenomena which cannot be demonstrated with such evidence. Hence science will reject religion, if those study criteria are adhered to.
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  26. #25 Just for the record 
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    Skeptic, just from curiosity, what sort of work do you do? What is your profession?

    Just to be fair, I'm a retired lawman; spent twenty-eight years finding out what people didn't want me to know, collecting, evaluating and collating evidence for presentation in court. I worked under very strict rules of evidence procedures not unlike a research scientist.

    My hobbies - as long as I can remember - are cosmology, particle physics and internal/external ballistics of firearms. I actively experiment with internal ballistics, evaluating how pressure curves effect velocity of a projectile and how different factors - bullets, burn speed of propellents and such - affect the pressure curve and resultant velocity. As you might expect, this hobby requires a great deal of attention to and evaluation of physical evidence.

    I am also a life long Christian. My devotion and service to God require that I respect the truth. I am convinced there is nothing can be discovered, found, calculated or determined that can threaten God's authority or nature. So far, the only thing 'science' as a whole has to say about God is 'undefined' or 'unknown'. No claim can be made God does not exist, only that instrumentation or conventional science cannot encounter such a Being.
    The universe is a real place. However, you can't see it, you have to imagine it. Like it or not, God designed, built and sustains the Universe. Deal with it.
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  27. #26  
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    There should be a pseudo science section called "The scientific study of ignorance based superstious mythology and the effects of ignorance based superstitions on the interpretation of what the scientific method is about".


    and the "Scientific Study of faith in Astrology and in the Horoscope"
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    The science of faith.

    I wonder what we would find.

    Example:

    The hypothesis: if I have a certain amount of faith, more than anyone else, and conducted myself in accordance with the law of my faith, I will go to heaven.

    As you can see, a scientific analysis of faith is very difficult when juggling concepts of life and death, life after death, and so on.

    How can we "prove" heaven exists, let alone hell, without havfing faith in someone who's been there........repeatedly, and has the booty to show it......... ?



    Maybe a good standard for "faith" therefore would be something science is ünable to prove but remains a distinct possibility nonetheless?

    "The scientific study of faith" would therefore seem to be, as a "process", a weeding out of what is a real faith and what is not?

    What about this: "can science explain everything"?

    Or more obscure still: why is faith always about something we can't yet prove, like the future, the idea of "going to heaven", ideas relevant to future revelations that science cannot instruct?


    Given how pessimistic science is regarding "future developments" in this that or the other, how very pessimistic, very untrusting, faith is quite the default that keeps people moving forward, no?
    Last edited by theQuestIsNotOver; December 3rd, 2011 at 09:03 PM.
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    I once heard a religious guru say that science will meet religion in mysticism. It's a fascinating idea.

    The scientific study of religion is at present restricted to the outer practices of religion and the effects of religion on people or societies. But due to the existential or experiential dimension of religion all these studies are necessarily superficial to the subjective experience of religion that people are practically involved in. It's like someone describing the chemical and brain processess that happen when someone is in love, compared to actually 'being' in love, or having the personal experience of love.

    If we consider the method outlined by each particular religion as the method of an experiment. ie do this, follow these rules, practice these rituals etc Then the experiment can be undertaken by each person individually and the results can be confirmed or denied on an experiential level. The words experiment and expereince are related. Maybe if we look at the religious experiment as being an individual experiential one - ie mysticism, some progress could be made.

    It seems that science's demand for empirical evidence when applied to the experiential or subjective level of existence can never be fulfilled. There seems to be an epistemological gap between the objective world and consciousness or our inner world. What we know of the outside world, and what we know in our inner world are almost in different dimensions.

    Also, most atheists assume that religious belief is a product of the mind, and this may be true in many cases. However, there would not be many religious people if religion did not produce what I will call 'wellbeing'. By wellbeing I mean something like satisfaction, a sense of purpose, peace, happiness, along these lines anyway. Religion is an inner experiential thing, not something you think although it does have it's intellectual doctrinal side to it as well. So the distinction between the intellectual and the experimental seems to be important when it comes to considering religion scientifically.
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  30. #29  
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    It seems that science's demand for empirical evidence when applied to the experiential or subjective level of existence can never be fulfilled. There seems to be an epistemological gap between the objective world and consciousness or our inner world. What we know of the outside world, and what we know in our inner world are almost in different dimensions.
    It may seem that way, but the social sciences are getting much closer to tying in the hard sciences to bridge that gap. Psychophysiology and neurosciences have exploded in recent decades and are at the center of that research.
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  31. #30  
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    Harold said:
    History, sociology, and anthropology are other fields where study of religion could play a part. The subforum used to be called just "Religion" until the previous owner decided to ban preaching.
    And Lynx_Fox pointed to archeology as being able to verify some history and geography as found in the Bible.

    As to the "preaching" under the earlier format, I always thought there was something of a double standard whereby non-believers were able to freely "preach" non-belief while believers were not granted the privilege of "preaching," in kind.

    The problem with the change was that the Bible was categorically declared fictional mythology and was essentially barred as a reference book for believers.

    The Bible is mostly a book about relationships. Sometimes, it reveals the same things about relationships that we find in the appropriate non-religious fields of study.

    Archie said:

    I am convinced there is nothing can be discovered, found, calculated or determined that can threaten God's authority or nature. So far, the only thing 'science' as a whole has to say about God is 'undefined' or 'unknown'. No claim can be made God does not exist, only that instrumentation or conventional science cannot encounter such a Being.
    Well said, brother. If only I were able to express this concept with the same depth and clarity in such a short statement.

    I thought Seeker123 expressed an important insight into the problem of defining the internal subjective experience of the religious by some external objective means. The problem arises when, unable to quantify the subjective experience, the objectivist declares it to be invalid or unreal.
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